State of the Union: Part 2

Last week we covered the status of the Buccaneers’ quarterback unit. Now we’re going to cover the wide receivers. There is reason to hope but just as much for concern.

Let’s get started.

Mike Evans

The second-year receiver had one of the best sophomore slumps ever.

Evans remains one of the league’s best and most promising wideouts. His 1206 receiving yards was the 11th most in the league. He ranked 5th in receptions over 20 yards with 21. He was second only to Allen Robinson in yards per reception among the 1000-yard receivers. Needless to say, he all but carried the Bucs receiving corps while Vincent Jackson was injured.

So why did Evans get so much heat this season? Drops. A receiver’s primary job is to catch the ball. Evans failed to do his job more than any other receiver in the NFL with 11 drops according to Sportingcharts. The problem is not with Evans’ hands. It’s with his head.

This was no more apparent than the game where Evans accrued more than half his drops this season: Week 9 against the Giants. While he caught 8 passes for 150 yards, he dropped a mind-boggling six balls, the most in 10 years according to Pro Football Talk. Yes it was raining, but it rains in lots of games. It wasn’t the gloves. It was the yips.

Evans’ positives far outweigh his negatives, but his poor concentration kept him from being considered one of the NFL’s best. With Vincent Jackson on the decline, the offense demands Evans be better and take command of the pass game.

Vincent Jackson

It’s the beginning of the end for Vincent Jackson.

For the first time as a Buccaneer, Jackson failed to play a full 16 game slate. He missed six games with various knee injuries and finished the season on injured reserve. Even when he was on the field, the perennial 1000-yard receiver was not so perennial. He averaged only 54 receiving yards per game and scored only 3 touchdowns.

The real issue is Jackson’s age. For a younger player, the Bucs could just chalk his bad year up to the injuries. At 33, it might be the other way around. Jackson had been a durable player for the previous 4 seasons and played in all 16 games in eight of his 11 years in the NFL. While it’s not certain that his age was the central contributor to the impact of his injuries, Jackson reached an age where it’s now a valid question.

Entering the final year of his contract, Jackson counts $12.2 million to the Bucs’ salary cap per Over the Cap. That’s way more than a guy with 33 catches in 2015 is worth. There’s no way the Bucs don’t address his contract, either by extending and restructuring or by outright cutting him.

The former option is preferable. The Bucs receivers are pretty shaky behind Jackson. He still has great hands and provides veteran leadership on an otherwise young offense. He could bounce back, especially with Jameis Winston entering his second year. At his age, Jackson is unlikely to

Louis Murphy

The Bucs’ third receiver sat out most of the season after tearing his ACL in Week 7 against Washington. Even before his injury, Murphy was not very effective. He caught only 10 passes for 198 yards in six games.

2015 was the first year of Murphy’s three-year extension with the Bucs. He’s due to make $1.5 million in 2016 and $2 million in 2017, none guaranteed. While he is the only other Bucs receiver besides Vincent Jackson and Russell Shepard with more than two years experience, Murphy’s value is dubious. He is a deep play threat, but he is only good for one to three catches each game.

The Bucs have a lot of young receivers chomping at the bit to prove themselves and establish themselves in the league. Murphy’s knee injury gave guys like Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye a shot to make an impression. Murphy has a lot more competition heading into the 2016 season. He should make it to camp, but he very well may be cut before the start of the season.

Russell Shepard

Every season on HBO’s Hard Knocks, there is a notion that persists for every player on the  bubble: special teams is the way to make the roster. That is what keeps Russell Shepard on Tampa Bay’s roster and what makes him so valuable.

Shepard is one of the Bucs best special teamers and a team captain. He’s even known for providing pregame pump-up speeches, as Pewter Report’s Scott Reynolds reported earlier this month. In fact, it was during Shepard’s pregame speech in Week 2 against New Orleans that Lovie Smith objected to his course language which may have led to the Bucs’ flat performance and loss.

Special teams play is underappreciated. It’s not so easy to find the kind of ace Shepard is. He doesn’t provide much help as a receiver, but as long as the Bucs don’t find a better special teams player, Shepard isn’t going anywhere. As a restricted free agent, the Bucs don’t have to bid much to keep his services. He’ll be around in 2016.

Donteea Dye

The NFL is a long way from D-III Heidelberg. Donteea Dye put in a lot of work to make the trip.

Dye was one of the Bucs’ undrafted free agents last year. They likely were interested in his 4.27 40 time which makes him one of the fastest players on the team. With speed like his, he could be a serious weapon for the Bucs.

A multitude of injuries to the Bucs receiving corps not only pressed Dye onto the main roster but even started five games. Despite playing 10 games, Dye only finished with 11 catches for 198 yards and a touchdown. He also had key drop in Week 14 against the Saints.

Dye’s rookie season was unremarkable, but that shouldn’t be surprising. Most NFL receivers struggle their first season. Dye has a greater learning curve than most coming from D-III ball.

Still, the NFL is a business. If Jason Licht can find receivers he likes better, Dye doesn’t have much of resume to tout. He’ll have to keep fighting through training camp and preseason.

Adam Humphries

Another undrafted free agent, Adam Humphries was forced into service early and exhibited real promise. He caught 27 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown in 13 games. His numbers seem relatively pedestrian until you see that 18 of his receptions went for first downs. Two-thirds of his catches moved the sticks, often on third down.

Anyone who tuned into the Bucs Brief podcast this season heard him rave about Humphries’ hands, for good reason. The rookie out of Clemson made clutch catches all season for the Bucs and is among the best on the team at getting open.

Humphries may end up competing with Dye for a roster spot. If so, he has the upper hand. The Bucs have greater need of a sure-handed receiver than another deep threat like Dye.

Kenny Bell

The Bucs’ fifth-round pick effectively redshirted his rookie season. He was placed on injured reserve following the preseason. While he didn’t play a single down, he was a constant fixture on the sidelines during the regular season.

It’s unclear what the Bucs have in Bell. His 4.42 40 speed is exciting but untested in the NFL. He will be in the same boat as Humphries and Dye, competing for a roster spot. Jason Licht demonstrated no compunction for cutting draft picks within a year so draft status won’t protect Bell. This preseason is equally crucial for Bell as the other young receivers.

*I chose not to include Evan Spencer as he played a very limited role in the offense in 2015.

The Bucs are unlikely to spend any high or even mid-draft picks on wide receivers. That doesn’t preclude the Bucs from signing a free agent or falling in love with an undrafted rookie. More than likely though, the Bucs already have their 2016 receivers on the roster.

The T00-Early Depth Chart Predictions:

Mike Evans

Vincent Jackson

Russell Shepard

Adam Humphries

Kenny Bell

Next I’ll be doing running backs. Stay tuned!




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